Francis Henry Newbery 1855–1946
By George Rawson
Fra Newbery, as he liked to be called, was a leading figure in British art and design in the twenty years around 1900. As Director of Glasgow School of Art from 1885 to 1917 he made his school one of the major art training institutions in the world. As a painter he was closely associated with the Glasgow Boys, a group of artists who were part of the European avant-garde in the early 1890s. He was an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Scotland and in the later 1890s helped the group of designers around the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to achieve international fame. The Glasgow School of Art building which Mackintosh designed in close collaboration with Newbery is everywhere acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of twentieth century architecture. Newbery, however, spent over half of his life in Dorset.
He was born in Membury in Devon on 15 May 1855, but he grew up in Bridport where he lived from 1858 to 1875. Here he trained to be a teacher at the Bridport Boys’ General School under its gifted headmaster John Beard, qualifying in 1874. From about 1871 he attended the Bridport School of Art, on the first floor of the Literary and Scientific Institute, qualifying as an art master, and acting as assistant to its headmaster. In 1875 he obtained an appointment as art master at a London secondary school. He worked in London schools until 1882 when he obtained a scholarship to become an Art Master in Training at the National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art). By the time he left to become the head of the Glasgow School of Art in 1885, he was acting as a member of staff, teaching painting, the figure, and architecture.
At Glasgow Newbery appointed major professional artists, designers, and architects to teach his courses. Its teachers included artists, designers, and architects of international standing from across Europe, and the number of women on its staff far exceeded those to be found in other schools. Classes were conducted on practical lines, the students being thoroughly trained, where possible, in the use of the materials of their chosen professions. Under Newbery Glasgow was one of the first art schools to introduce courses in craft subjects. Believing that everyone was a potential artist, Newbery saw the teacher’s role as enabling the student to discover and develop his or her own unique artistic personality.
On his retirement Newbery and his wife Jessie, a leading embroiderer, designer and artist in her own right, retired to live in Corfe Castle. After staying at the Greyhound Inn from 1919 they bought Eastgate House, on East Street, in 1921 together with a former chapel and cottages grouped around a courtyard, known as Well Court, on West Street. The chapel became Newbery’s studio.
Newbery had had a successful painting career from the 1890s, showing at leading exhibitions in London, Paris, Munich, the Venice Biennales, and the United States: his paintings finding their way into public and private collections across the world. Influenced by Whistler, the Dutch Hague School and the French painter Millet amongst others, his work was quite diverse in style. He was primarily a painter of the human figure: ranging from groups of children, to aesthetic interiors with single female subjects, to studies of working people at their occupations, or at leisure. His holidays during the early twentieth century had been spent at Walberswick on the Suffolk coast where many of his works were executed.
Much of Newbery’s work in Dorset focused on the village of Corfe itself – he made several paintings of the castle, its people, and his friends across the county, whom he portrayed along with trappings related to their interests and occupations. Since his last years in Glasgow, however, he had become increasingly interested in celebrating the history and culture of particular places in his art, and in making his work publicly visible in the locations which he depicted. This related to his philosophy that art was an essential human activity which should be practised and shared by everyone. Newbery designed Corfe’s War Memorial, a sculpture of Saint Edward for its Parish Church, and a sign for the village. In Bridport he donated a series of paintings, recording the town’s industrial heritage, to its Town Hall. In Swanage he designed, decorated and made paintings for the sanctuary of its Roman Catholic Church: and, to bring art to the Dorset public at large, he painted signs for its public houses. He completed most of his public works in Dorset between the ages of 65 and 75.
Newbery died, aged 91, at Corfe Castle on 18 December 1946.